For some years now, Stephanie West Allen and I have marveled at how “presentism” has undermined the basic comprehension of history in context. It doesn’t make things any more, or less, right or wrong, but it gives rise to a false and distorted understanding of how and why things happened.
Was Christopher Columbus just a horrifying colonial genocidal rapist? If viewed through today’s lens, perhaps. But he didn’t exist in today’s culture, and so should his actions be judged by the woke perspective? Just to add an additional wrinkle, does it occur to those who believe that they are have reached the absolute pinnacle of propriety, righteousness, morality and decency, that their views will be judged down the road by people who will shake their heads in horror at how terrible they were?
What people tend to overlook is that at any given point in history, people tend to believe that what they are doing is acceptable, if not beneficial, to society. And society lets them know at the time. Columbus was feted by his patron, Queen Isabella. Later, statues were raised in his honor, cities, even a district, named for him. How is it possible that someone can be so honored at some points in time until they’re reviled?
The question isn’t whether Columbus was, on some objective scale as if such a thing exists, good or evil, but whether his actions at the time were viewed as honorable. You can hate the past as much as you want, but you don’t get to reinvent it.
The impetus for this stroll down memory lane was a comment by Conor Friedersdorf quoting Harvey Weinstein.
More broadly, Weinstein himself said,
“I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then. I have since learned it’s not an excuse, in the office – or out of it. To anyone. I realized some time ago that I needed to be a better person and my interactions with the people I work with have changed. I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it.”
That Weinstein treated women badly in the workplace, then the focus of #MeToo, and used his wealth to escape normal person consequences for it for a long time is not in doubt.
First, I would urge people to be reluctant to take a press release by a person accused at face value. The purpose of such utterances may not reflect sincere beliefs, but rather an effort to spin the past into conformance with the pieties of the moment.
One of the benefits, and detriments, of having lived through a few generations is that you existed at a time that no longer exists, and you’re constrained by reality to understand those times in context.
There was once, long ago, something called the “sexual revolution,” where the woke people of the day sought to change the Victorian prudist view of sex, something done only to procreate, something women should suffer for their husbands and never, but never initiate and enjoy, into an independent act in which people could choose to engage for fun and pleasure, without guilt. Sex went from this extremely serious, and quasi-disgusting thing, that women were forced by their god to endure, into a game to be played by all.
One of the aspects of this game was that it just wasn’t that big a deal. Having sex was akin to drinking a milkshake or eating at a restaurant; if it was fun and good, enjoy it. If the meal sucked, don’t go back to the restaurant again. But unless you got food poisoning, you shrugged off the bad meal and moved on to the next one. It wasn’t traumatic. It was just sex.*
This isn’t to question Conor’s takeaway, that “Weinstein treated women badly in the workplace, then the focus of #MeToo,” If you weren’t alive back then, this is how it looks today. Except this wasn’t real. The defense in Weinstein’s case is outrageous by today’s neo-Victorian standards. His primary lawyer, Donna Rotunno, has become reviled by women for her arguments at trial that these putative rapes were knowing exchanges, sex for Weinstein in exchange for stardom.
Today, it’s traumatic and awful.
But one additional interesting piece is the additional aspect of wealth.
…and used his wealth to escape normal person consequences.
Weinstein is wealthy and under the spotlight, but this wasn’t just about Weinstein. It’s unsurprising that grandma didn’t tell you what she did at Woodstock, but it happened and she was just a normal person. The reason neither she nor grandpa faced consequences wasn’t because they possessed vast wealth like Weinstein, but because it was a different time. Don’t judge it by your feelings today.
*For those who think I’m making this up and are outraged by it, go read The Harrad Experiment, by Robert Rimmer or Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong, wherein “the zipless fuck” was coined.